Something’s got to give: IP industry must rethink workload expectations or risk losing talent

  • Most UK IP practitioners experiencing stress or anxiety due to workload-related pressures
  • Over 40% have considered leaving their job or profession entirely
  • Access to support is improving, but does not tackle the root cause

IP Inclusive has published the results of its 2022 Mental Health Awareness Week survey and they make for concerning reading. UK IP practitioners are experiencing greater levels of work-related stress since the pandemic. Initiatives to support employees are improving, but a fundamental change is needed to tackle the problem at its root. Without addressing unrealistic workloads, the industry will remain at significant risk of losing talent.

Most UK IP attorneys, paralegals and business support staff are experiencing increased stress (55%) and anxiety (51%) as a result of their work, the survey has found. Meanwhile, roughly a quarter (24.5%) have been affected by depression over the past 12 months. In fact, only one-in-four IP practitioners (26.7%) claim not to have experienced stress or mental health problems this year. Instead, such issues have only increased since the pandemic. 

“What the survey has most usefully shown us is the main causes of the problem, which – as in 2018 and 2019 – continue to be workload-related,” Andrea Brewster, lead executive officer at IP Inclusive, tells WTR.

The biggest pressures for IP attorneys come from:

  • deadlines (60.1% of main survey respondents identified this as a cause of stress and anxiety);
  • client demands and expectations (45.2%);
  • billing targets (44.1%); and
  • insufficient support (35.7%).

Weighing heaviest on paralegals and business support staff are:

  • deadlines (37.5% of paralegal and business support staff respondents identified this as a cause of stress and anxiety);
  • insufficient control over workloads (33.6%);
  • insufficient support (29.6%); and
  • long hours (27%).

The conflict between work and home life and/or personal (eg, caring) responsibilities is also putting a strain on both groups (32.7% and 26.3%, respectively). This has been magnified by the pandemic. Almost half of all IP attorneys (47.9%) and over 40% of paralegals and business support staff are more concerned about their work-life balance now than they were pre-covid. Meanwhile, roughly a quarter (27.9% of IP attorneys and 23.1% of paralegal and business support staff) are more concerned about personal responsibilities such as caring for dependants since covid-19.

The results suggest that a post-covid (often hybrid) working environment has amplified many of the pre-existing pressures on IP professionals. In fact, between over 35% of practitioners are more concerned about working hours now than before the pandemic – likely due to a combination of increased workloads and the difficulties in switching off when working from home.

“The problem of heavy, often unsupported, workloads has merely shifted from the workplace into the home space and ultimately, that could be storing up even more problems for us,” Brewster warns. “People generally seem to have more flexibility now as to place – and even times – of work, which has yielded some positives. But a large proportion, as a result, are now more concerned about their work-life balance and control over their working hours.”

All of this is having a significant impact on business output. Stress and other mental health issues are regularly leading to:

  • mistakes (or near-mistakes);
  • reduced productivity;
  • reduced confidence;
  • difficulty concentrating; and
  • physical problems such as fatigue and loss of sleep.

Around three-quarters of IP attorneys reported reduced productivity (73.2%) and difficulty concentrating (75.6%) as a result of work-related stress. Meanwhile, over a quarter of all respondents to the survey (25.2%) admitted to making work-related mistakes that would not have happened otherwise.

Worse still, over 40% of IP attorneys, paralegals and business support staff have considered leaving their current jobs or the profession entirely.

“Our sector cannot afford for that to continue,” Brewster urges. “We need to keep our people safe; they are our most valuable asset. We need them to work efficiently and without mistakes – which someone with mental health problems cannot do. And we want them to stay, because recruitment is a difficult and expensive process in this sector.”

To do this, the industry needs to prioritise long-term productivity over short-term profits, Brewster explains.

The percentage of respondents with access to a trained mental health first-aider has more than doubled since the 2019 survey. Access to employee assistance programmes and private healthcare that extends to mental health problems has also increased significantly. However, less than 20% of respondents have access to back-to-work support after an absence (eg, a phased return or regular follow-ups), support networks or groups, or wellbeing training. Without this support, the biggest barriers to taking time off include:

  • feeling that you should be able to cope;
  • having too much work to do;
  • not wanting to make life difficult for colleagues; and
  • not wanting to let clients down.

Most IP attorneys (57.4%), paralegals and business support staff (51.8%) cited having too much work to do as the biggest barrier to taking time off. Meanwhile, 41.6% of IP attorneys cited not wanting to let clients down.

While these figures are marginally better than in IP Inclusive’s previous surveys, they suggest that there is still a stigma around mental health issues in the IP workplace. Most respondents (between 51%-57.3%) feel that they can discuss these issues with a sympathetic line manager. But this is still far less than ideal. What is more, this number drops when seeking a sympathetic HR personnel (28.7%-35.7%).

Thankfully, less than 10% of respondents have access to no support at all, which is an improvement since 2019. More and more organisations are therefore investing in concrete policies and a workplace culture that better supports mental health, but these initiatives often fail to tackle the root of the problem.

“Whilst it's encouraging that there are more support measures being introduced, to help the people who are struggling, there's still plenty to be done about the things that are causing people to struggle in the first place,” says Brewster. “Having more mental health first aiders is good. But better still will be to ensure they're rarely called on.”

This requires change on “a more fundamental level”, she insists. “The people at the very tops of organisations will need to look long and hard at the demands they place on the staff who generate profits for them, and about managing those demands more effectively and more humanely. Contingency plans – to enable people to take a step back if they're struggling – need to be in place. And there needs to be a corporate culture, modelled from the very top, that says it's OK to set boundaries, to have limits, to admit if you're too stressed and ask others to step in and help while you recover.”

The data in the new report highlights these issues and the importance of discussing them openly. It also serves as a stark reminder of the need for preventative action. Processes that react to mental health concerns after they have been raised are not enough. There is still too much stigma around asking for help. Organisations need to find a way to reduce the workload-related pressures on IP professionals. Otherwise, many will continue to carry the weight of expectations without seeking support, creating greater issues further down the road – both for the individual and for the business.

“We cannot keep expecting our workers to be machines with limitless capacity and endless resilience,” urges Brewster. The IP industry needs to put its people first, before it loses them.

The 2022 Mental Health Awareness Week survey was a joint project between IP Inclusive and the charity Jonathan’s Voice. It was open to all members of the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys (CIPA) and the Chartered Institute of Trademark Attorneys (CITMA), as well as to business support professionals working in patent and trademark organisations that may not be members of either institute.

Separate, tailored versions were provided to students, paralegals and business support professionals, and other CIPA and CITMA members (also known as the ‘main’ survey). This was the first year that business support professionals were consulted alongside paralegals. Respondents came from a range of roles, career levels and working environments, with most working in large, private practice firms.

WTR wants to hear your views on mental health in the IP industry as part of its new diversity and inclusion survey. The results will feature in an upcoming Special Report on building a diverse trademark workplace. The survey closes at the end of October. Click here to share your thoughts.

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